Developing a solar power boat transportation network in the Ecuadorian Amazon

Nothing can prepare you for the feeling of sitting in a 5-seater prop plane flying over the Amazon rainforest. As we looked below at the river and trees that extended as far as the eye could see, it really started to dawn on us that we were heading into the jungle.  While there were plenty of great experiences on our trip to Ecuador, there’s no doubt that our time in the Amazon rainforest was the highlight.

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Background

Our SEID team consisted of Howard Hong, Arvind Nagarajan, Javier Nieto, and Saurabh Sanghvi. We worked with Fundacion Pachamama, an Ecuadorian nonprofit focused on protecting the Amazon region and the tribes living there. Our team worked with them on a project to bring solar-powered boats to the Achuar region of the Amazon.  In coordination with an MIT engineering team focused on the boat design, our SEID team was responsible for putting together a business plan for the endeavor to ensure local ownership and sustainability for the project. To that end, our trip to Ecuador was designed to truly understand the current transportation methods within the Achuar region, income and travel opportunities, and potential implementation paths for solar-powered boats. Arvind, Javier, and Saurabh traveled to Ecuador for a total duration of three weeks, from December 29 to January 18, spending time in Quito, Puyo, and the Achuar region.

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Initial Preparation

We spent our first week in Quito, putting together a plan for the trip and taking in the sights. On the work end, we coordinated with Oliver Utne, the project manager at Fundacion Pachamama, and Wain Collen, an independent consultant on the project. We reviewed the goals for the project, gained background information on the Achuar region, and presented the initial models and frameworks we had developed through the semester. We discussed the gaps remaining and the best way to address them, coming up with a detailed itinerary for our trip to the Amazon to fully flesh out the business model. In addition, we developed comprehensive interview guides for key individuals we hoped to interview during our trip and created exercises for focus groups to understand the existing travel habits of the Achuar people.

This work did not prevent us from our share of fun in Quito. While we stayed in a hostal in a quiet area in La Floresta, we were close to the action (read: parties) in the Marsical region. For New Year’s, we experienced Ecuadorian traditions: in what could only be described as a combination of a mini-riot and Halloween, tons of people dressed up in costumes, burned effigies (little dolls) on the streets, and then jumped over the large fires that resulted. From what we were told, these rituals were an attempt to rid yourself of the past year’s sins and start afresh for the new year.  With little hesitation, we got in the action:

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After New Year’s Day, we had time to do some sightseeing during the day. Quito, at an elevation of ~2,800 meters nestled between mountain ranges, offers some spectacular views. From the top of Panecillo to the Teleferico, there are plenty of places where you can see all of Quito. Plus, we even rented scooters one day, which allowed us to experience driving in Ecuador first-hand and see most of the city. All in all, our time in Quito only got us more excited for what was to come.

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The Jungle

We left for the jungle during the first week of January. First, we took a 5 hour bus ride to Puyo, a rural town on the edge of the rainforest. To get into the Achuar region, pretty much all chartered planes take off from Puyo. There, we met Pascual Collero, a member of the Achuar community that had been elected to serve as the coordinator for all economic development projects in the Achuar region. He was really excited about the potential of solar-powered boats and helped coordinate the logistics of our trip into the Achuar region.

After our 45-minute prop flight into the Amazon, we landed in Sharamentsa, an Achuar community with about 30 families and 150 people. A relatively sizable community within the Achuar region (where there are ~7,000 people), Sharamentsa was one of the few communities that was seeking to actively solicit tourism. They let us stay in their new tourist cabins, which were an absolute marvel in the midst of the jungle. Right on the Pastaza river, our cabins had hammocks, beds with mosquito nets, and running water for most of the day.

Using that as our home base, we proceeded to begin the most important part of our trip. Pascual introduced us to the entire community and outlined our objectives, and the community leader was very welcoming. We interviewed several community members using the interview guides we developed. In addition, we gathered the entire community for focus groups to get a sense of the travel habits of the community. The exercises we did with the community proved to be a major success: everyone was really engaged as we allowed them to put beans on the communities that they currently traveled to or wanted to travel to.

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               After two days with the Sharamentsa community, we took a boat ride to another community to get a different perspective. We went to Charapacocha, a nearby community that had ~250 residents. On our ride there, we quickly saw the difficulties of navigating the rivers, as we went upstream and into some narrow waterways to get to our eventual destination.

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               Though we spent less time in Charapacocha, we gained a lot of insights, especially through the focus groups. Hearing how the community members traveled and the limitation of gas-powered boats (namely, fuel and costs) were helpful as we thought about how to structure the solar-powered business.

Our time in the Amazon consisted of a lot of work, but we found time to enjoy our surroundings as well. Augustino, a member of the Sharamentsa community, took us on a hike to a nearby waterfall, giving us explanations of the sights and sounds of the forest as we went along. In addition, we spent a lot of time just interacting with the community – learning their customs and rituals and having fun. On our last day, they even threw a little party for us, putting on a skit to commemorate our trip. The trip was truly a once in a lifetime adventure.

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Final Deliverables

After our return from the Amazon, we spent time working to coordinate our findings and put together our final deliverables. We went to a friend’s house outside of Quito on a 2-day retreat with Wain, Pascual and Oliver, putting together our insights from the trip and trying to determine next steps.

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We determined that fundamentally, if the project were to succeed, it would have to dramatically change the travel habits of the community. Currently, travel options work on a “taxi” basis – when you need to travel, you commission a boat (which costs quite a lot) and go directly to your destination. On the solar-powered project, the goal is to create a “bus”-like system of public transport, with set routes happening on pre-determined timeframes.

Based on this, we presented an idea to pilot a new system – instead of waiting for the boats to arrive (which may not happen till mid-2014), they could test a “bus” system with gas-powered boats at low costs. This way, they could start to understand how community members would use such a system and refine the routes and prices in accordance. Additionally, this would provide greater insight into the economic feasibility of the project. The Fundacion Pachamama team loved this concept and has decided to present the idea to the Achuar community at an assembly in mid-February. Hopefully, the project will get off the ground and they can start gathering more robust data on the travels of the community and how the eventual solar-powered system will operate.

After our meeting, we spent our remaining time synthesizing our key findings into a Powerpoint deck and refining our model to incorporate the knowledge gained on the trip. In the end, we left them with a robust business model that will allow them to test the economics of the gas-powered pilot, the solar-powered boats, or any hybrid solution they may end up with.  As the boat designs are finalized, they now have a good grasp of how much they will have to charge in order to maintain and operate the boats, and how a business model should be run in terms of labor and operations.  We are optimistic that the project can have a tremendous impact in the Achuar community and serve as a model for sustainable technological development.

Thanks

Overall, our trip was a tremendous success and amazingly enjoyable. We learned a great deal about the challenges of implementing new technology in developing countries and met some amazing people along the way. Without the support of the PSC and SEID, none of this would have been possible. We are deeply appreciative of the support and can’t wait to help out with next year’s SEID projects!

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